China-India spat signals Beijing’s tensions with generals
Fresh signs of tension between China’s military and the new Beijing regime are peering through a surprising backdoor. President Xi Jinping was thought to be closer to the generals than his predecessors but may now be involved in a backstage showdown with them over policy towards India, the other huge military power in Asia.
To underline India’s importance for Xi’s foreign policy, China’s new premier Li Keqiang plans to visit Delhi later this month, making India his first foreign trip since Xi and Li took power in March. But the atmosphere has been soured by the most serious Indian accusations in 25 years that Chinese soldiers have established military encampments six miles inside India in the Depseng valley of Ladakh. Incursions are common in the desolate and poorly delineated border but have never been this deep. The Chinese military has caused furor by claiming that territory so far away from the perceived border belongs to China.
Li’s visit was designed as a very positive move between two nuclear-armed giants that fought a war in 1962 and continue to have unresolved tensions along almost the entire length of their border. It was also meant to extend a friendly hand to Delhi, which has started to lean towards the US after decades of non-alignment. Alongside economic deals, goals included talking down Delhi’s fears of China’s growing military power and softening its belief that Beijing’s grip on Tibet is destroying Tibetan culture.
The Indian army noticed the Depseng valley camps about two weeks ago, causing uproar in parliament and the media although the foreign minister tried to play them down as spots of “acne” that can be treated “by simply applying an ointment.” Beijing says the dispute should be settled through negotiations but has not admitted that the soldiers are on Indian territory.
The disturbing and surprising element is that the incursions occurred just weeks before Li’s planned visit. The timing might mean that China’s generals are trying to force Xi’s hand because they do not want more trade and business expansion with India without concessions on the border. In the past five years, China has become India’s largest trading partner opening up opportunities for friendship.
The attempt now may be to use the sweeteners of economic partnership to get Delhi to swallow the bitter pill of Chinese claims to territory in the Ladakh region. The area is vital for India because it touches Pakistan, a bitter enemy and friend of China’s military that helped it to acquire the nuclear bomb and continues to be a major weapons supplier.
The Chinese military’s usual method is to push the envelope to evaluate the other side’s reactions. It is sending a signal to Delhi that the dragon is nearby to dissuade further leaning towards Washington, Beijing’s chief rival in a potential US-China cold war. The incursions may also be a signal to avoid leaning towards India’s largest weapons supplier, Russia, and instead build an independent relationship with Beijing but on terms favorable to the Chinese military’s perceptions. This is hard for Delhi because trust between the two countries falls far short of the friendship required for the Indian people not to feel threatened by Chinese power.
Currently, Indian nationalists are baying for a strong riposte to the incursions that might cause Li to cancel his visit. Some have accused the Indian prime minister and army of cowardice. Others note that India cannot successfully halt China in a border war because its supply lines are primitive compared to the four lane highways and airstrips near the border on the other side. They want a huge and sustained Indian military build up to face China in the future.
Apparently, China’s generals want to move quickly to pressure India before the military balance between the two countries becomes more equal and Indian can afford to react forcefully. However, it seems clear that Xi wants to focus on China’s economic problems rather than getting involved in a spat on India’s borders. A prolonged shootout may cause Washington and Europe to look on Beijing with renewed apprehension and trigger the US-China cold war that everyone wants to avoid.
Therefore, most hope that a visit to Beijing by the Indian foreign minister next week will defuse the situation. That should not be difficult since India wants only that the tents be dismantled. Whether that happens depends on Xi being able to stare down his generals.
China India flag graphic via shutterstock.com